Saturday, 27 August 2016

In the Company of Angels


 The living and the dead,
The awake and the sleeping,
The young and the old
are all one and the same.
~ Heraclitus ~

Arnos Vale is a 45 acre green oasis of peace and calm in the middle of Bristol - a haven for wildlife - a place of 'heavenly works' created by man for man.
Almost 200 years ago the need for new burial places coincided with a trend for creating 'garden cemeteries'. The movement owed a lot to the fashion for all things classical, but was also inspired by Père-Lachaise Cemetery created in 1804 in Paris. By the time Arnos Vale Cemetery was opened in 1839, garden cemeteries were being established in other cities across England. The best known of these is London's Highgate Cemetery which has some of the finest funerary architecture in the country.

It is interesting that much of the religious symbolism in the cemetery that was so familar and known to our ancestors is often completely lost on us today.
A typical example above shows a pelican feeding her young. In medieval Europe, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood by wounding her chest when no other food was available. As a result the pelican came to symbolise the Passion of Christ and the Eucharist, usurping the image of the lamb and the flag. There is a hymn by St Thomas Aquinas where the penultimate verse describes Christ as the 'loving divine pelican' able to provide nourishment from his breast". 
A cross is the most common furniture architecture in a cemetery closely followed by an urn. The urn  represents an ancient symbol of death and the drapes symbolise sorrow and passage from one existence to another.
In funerary architecture the white lily represents the idea of purification of a departed soul - sometimes you will see a broken lily which indicates that the person died before their time

This unusual tomb for Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadoor is based on one from Bengal in a style known as 'chhatri' - an elevated architectural Indian dome.  A commemoration is held here annually attended by Bristol's Lord Mayor together with the Indian High Commissioner and admirers of Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadoor, a noted social reformer and the "Founder of Modern India". He was visiting Britain as the representative of the Mugual Emperor, Muhammad Akbar ll when he fell ill with meningitis and died in Bristol.
The cemetery is a unique time capsule of the Victorian and Edwardian period where the listed memorials and gravestones pay tribute to more than 300,000 people from Bristol's past. The Victorians would lease family graves 'in perpetuity' or for 125 years without giving any thought as to who would pay for their care after that. 

Wandering around the area is redolent of a time long gone where thousands of family graves have been effectively 'abandoned' over the years meaning that there are no funds for the upkeep of the graves. Nature has stepped in - trees push their way through the tombs which are in turn covered in ivy and brambles.
 The Victorians spent large amounts of money on their tombs. This enormous obelisk would have cost over a £1000, representing £65,000 in today's money. 
 What is the fate of this sylvan Arcadian landscape?




Members of the Friends of Arnos Vale have set up a trust to restore and protect the cemetery, and an open competion has recently been won by an American design team from Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture who submitted radical plans for its future. Their vision is to construct a constellation of lights among the woodlands around the cemetery, with each beacon glowing in remembrance of an individual. It is thought an urn containing the cremated remains would be embedded within the structure of the lamp, together with a digital depository of their online existence

Whilst respecting and preserving its past, could these radical plans be the future of Arnos Vale?  Personally I am not convinced that this is necessarily the way forward. However, it is imperative that this historic landscape with its Grade ll* listing should be preserved, and prevented from further degradation.

55 comments:

  1. Hello Rosemary, I love the atmosphere and architecture of old cemeteries, and Arnos Vale is obviously a classic. I disagree strongly with the "light show" idea--besides being tacky, who will pay for its complicated upkeep. They should have learned the lesson from the 125-year plan, although at least those graves become romantic-looking with neglect, more than likely will happen with a bunch of broken light fixtures. A large part of Arnos Vale's attraction is its appearance of age; it doesn;t need modernization.
    --Jim
    P.S. I am surprised that the light plan came from Columbia, a school well known for their preservation programs and outlook.

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    1. Hello Jinm - let's hope that the proposal remains just that - the illustration has 'disneyesque' qualities about it to me.

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  2. A place to wander and contemplate, filled with history, would be a shame to fill this peaceful place with lights.

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    1. I am glad that I am not alone in my thoughts regarding the future of Arnos Vale Jane

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  3. ...and I wanted to ad ' with anything modern' !

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  4. The "light show" is ridiculous . A cemetery , whether very old or brand new, should be peaceful and respectful, not a forum for flashy lights and design contests . Ridiculous .. who would even consider that for a minute ! No one with a loved one buried there I bet.

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  5. Very interesting post. I love to wander through old cemetery's. Adding anything modern to this place would be a real shame.

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    1. I remember visiting a cemetery in Italy at night time - relatives visited the graves in the evenings and lit little night lights and candles which flickered magically. You would image that it would be spooky but it wasn't, it was the oposite very cosy and welcoming. However, there is a very big difference between candles and a digital lighting system.

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    2. That sounds lovely.

      I dislike the intrusion of anything modern on historical architecture. I was horrified when I saw Shakespeare's house sitting directly on a mall. Then there is the ugly pyramid interfering with the Louvre. The list is endless. I think I was born in the wrong century.

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  6. let's hope that light show project never takes off....your photos show that this sacred place is pretty perfect just the way it is. lovely photos.

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    1. Thank you Steph - I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing the photos of this atmospheric landscape.

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  7. I have always enjoyed wandering through old cemeteries. We have a couple of very interesting ones here in Savannah.
    I don't see how the plan you've described could fit into that lovely cemetery
    .

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    1. Fortunately it is just a proposal, I have my doubts as to whether anything is likely to come of it. I think that there would be a big protest from many if it were pursued.

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  8. Thanks for the info about the religious symbolism of the pelican -- did not know that!

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  9. In a similar vein to your other comments, the light show seems too intrusive, too modern, too glitzy for this lovely peaceful place. The statuary you've shown is beautiful. I recently learned about the symbolic meaning of the pelican in a Celtic Christian book. I love the way symbols can remind us of spiritual things as we encounter them throughout life.

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    1. I am very interested in symbols and their meanings especially those whose interpretation has been lost over the centuries. If you know a little about symbols, particularly in paintings for example, it makes it so much easier to understand what you are looking at.

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  10. what a fascinating post about a fascinating place. I think it would be a shame to loose all that beautiful architecture and memorials.
    xxx

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    1. Whilst there is no intention of loosing the memorials, I personally think that using the light proposal would detract from the original concept too much. At this stage it is only a proposal and I would be very surprised if anything like that actually happens.

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  11. I do like visiting cemeteries. I usually seek them out when visiting a new place....like Pere'Lachaise in Paris. I learned something, as I always do here. interesting about the Pelican and the broken Lily. I speared headed cleaning up and saving a cemetery in Mississippi a few years ago. I located what was my GG-G rand parents plantation and found the family cemetery in ruins. I am happy to report all of the tombstones have been restored and cleaned and It is now declared a state historical sight.

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    1. What a wonderful story Janey - why don't you do a post on it? I for one would love to see and learn more.

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    2. Rosemary,

      I did write about it on my blog. It starts Thurs. Jan 26, 2012. Titled Through the Hollow. There are several parts. Documenting the whole thing. I am not sure how to navigate back on a blog. I think it is a very interesting story. You might especially like seeing the pictures...

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    3. I'll see if I can find it Janey - my blog has a blog archive on the sidebar which you can install.

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  12. I loved hearing the story of the pelican, my favorite sea bird here where we visit the coast.

    I've been to Highgate Cemetery as my brother lived near there for many years before moving to France. I never knew this one existed in Bristol of all places. My niece works there now for Airbus so I will give her a heads up to go visit. . . . . . . . . hopefully prior to any lighting installation! What will be next - a cemetery solar farm to provide the energy?
    I fear birds will not perch there at night with so much light. I'm certain Britain's architects could have come up with something much more appealing and reverent for a cemetery. Let's hope this never gets done to destroy beautiful Arnos Vale.

    Lovely photos Rosemary.

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    1. Dear Mary - I too visited Highgate many, many, years ago. It was at a time when I was first learning about the Pre-raphalite Brotherhood and was keen to find the Rossetti family tomb. Perhaps I should write about that at some stage as it is a really interesting story.

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  13. Hello Rosemary

    A wonderful interesting post and again I have learned from your writing. I shall look upon pelicans with an even more tender heart. I did not know how generous they were with their young.

    The students from Columbus likely had very good intentions but not for a burial ground. We need less lights at night time if only to consider nocturnal animals. When will the ghosts be able to wander about? The banshee will be very disturbed and will cast a spell. Heaven forbid.

    I loved your images too.

    Helen xx

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    1. Hello Helen - I used to love watching the pelicans when staying on Anna Maria Island near to the area where you do your 'en plein air' painting. Sadly this is a medieval story that has been exaggerated and in turn become a legend.
      The proposal, hopefully, will remain just that - we certainly don't want to disturb the banshee, she would be horrified.

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  14. Many interesting facts there. I enjoy wandering around old graveyards, especially the lush half overgrown kind where nature and architecture combine beautifully and are often a real haven for wildlife in cities. As others have said the remodeling might chase all that away.

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    1. With your comment I am reminded of the wonderful monuments on the summit of Glasgows Necropolis hill with the statue of John Knox crowning the hill amongst them. All those monumental tombs, many of them designed by "Greek" Thompson - Alexander Thompson, one of Glasgows finest architects. I think that a similar problem exists there too, in that money is also desparately needed in order to maintain the site.

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  15. A beautiful and peaceful cemetery, with some stunning architecture and sculpture. I do love the angels, and the celtic cross with lily is lovely. Like other readers, I would be disappointed to see the modern lighting effect which clashes so much with the existing traditional style. Let the animals, and the neighbours for that matter, enjoy the peace of the darkness of night!

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    1. Dear Patricia - this is a perennial problem here - graveyards attached to churches are maintained by the church and its members, these Victorian cemeteries are all running out of maintenance money. Sitting on such a valuable piece of land in a city centre makes it a prime spot and rich pickings for 'developers'.

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  16. Dear Rosemary, How wonderfully overgrown is the Arnos Vale. I love visiting European graveyards. They are often a lovely oasis of color and order. It always surprises American travelers to see so much attention given to cemeteries.
    You have chosen beautiful scenes to photograph and your photographs are outstanding.

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    1. Dear Gina - thank you for your kind comment re: photos. I had a problem with (our) camera this week as the shutter button suddenly stopped functioning. I thought that the camera was broken but it appears that it had unexpectedly gone into a different programme mode. I took the camera back to the factory setting and fortunately all was resolved - I gave a big sigh of relief.
      The cemeteries in Europe are extremely atmospheric and I love visiting them too.

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    2. Dear Rosemary, Thank you for letting me know how you "fixed our camner".

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  17. I can see the appeal of the light proposal but I agree that it doesn't seem to be thinking far enough ahead, and technology might well change too. I would be rather surprised if the poeple running the cemetery didn't think that too, but then I'm not quite sure what the purpose of the competition is. Is it possible it could be meant to be temporary and not permanent? As a sort of artwork for the next 5 years or something? there's a lot of that around these days!

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    1. I think that the idea of the competition was in order to help the Friends of Arnos Vale think of different solutions to their problems ie how to both maintain and restore the cemetery but also find the money to do so. The fact that this particular idea won does not mean to say that the proposal will be followed through - I suspect that there could well be opposition if they did, but it is good that they should explore different ideas to the solution.

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  18. I'm not convinced by the future vision of Arnos Vale either. There is something fascinating about Victorian's attitude to death and all the symbolism in their art. I don't know much about the symbolism so I was very interested to learn about some of the meanings here. I do love how wildlife flourishes in these places. It seems right to me that the graves are surrounded by the greenery and peace of the natural world.

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    1. It is a wonderful haven for wildlife, and a very atomospheric place to visit.

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  19. Dearest Rosemary,
    Indeed, a lot of the old symbolism will be lost upon the younger generations in particular but also the upkeep and even interest in visiting such historic place will go down. Sad fact but more and more this will go down.
    Indeed the plan for illuminating in such way does not make any sense to me either.
    Love the Angel statues and hope there will be respect and funds for preserving places like this.
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    1. Dear Mariette - when money is short places such as this become neglected especially as there are no relatives to tend the graves anymore - hopefully the Trust will manage to raise the necessary funds to stop it degradating further.

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  20. Beautiful carvings. All looks good.

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    1. Thank you for visiting and your comment

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  21. In this cemetery could walk endless time all and explore all these lovely graves and stones and monuments. Really beautiful pictures from the old burial ground.
    Hugs

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    1. It is a very atmospheric place in which to wander Orvokki - there were quite a few people strolling along the pathways, and children, especially, seemed to like it.

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  22. Always interesting to visit a grand cemetery.

    Greetings,
    Filip

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    1. Hello Filip - nice to see you, and hope all is well with you both

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  23. I shall look at pelicans in a new light - and I hope the new plans for light beams stay firmly on the drawing board.

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  24. I first heard about this cemetery about four years ago and I have been meaning to visit it. As some of my family originate from Bristol it could well be that they have been laid to rest here too. I'm so glad that Trust took it over but like you I am not sure if the new plans will enhance it.
    Sarah x

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    1. If you get in touch with the committee they most likely have a list of all the people buried in Arnos Vale, and might be able to give you more information.

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